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Until In Dreams, there seemed to be two filmmakers named Neil Jordan. One wrote and directed imaginative Anglo/Irish independent features: Mona Lisa, The Miracle, The Crying Game, The Butcher Boy. The other botched star-studded, big-budget American productions: We’re No Angels, High Spirits, Interview With the Vampire. Jordan gets his selves together in his new phantasmagorial thriller, an extravagant movie (partially shot in Titanic’s mammoth Mexican water tanks) featuring A-list Hollywood players (Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr.) yet as daring as anything he has ever attempted.
Appropriately produced by Dreamworks, In Dreams, co-authored by Jordan and Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I), opens with a poetic prologue: images of divers searching for something in an old New England town that was flooded to build a reservoir. We then meet Claire (Bening), a children’s book illustrator; her pilot husband, Paul (Aidan Quinn); and their young daughter, Rebecca (Katie Sagona). Claire, who has a history of psychic visions, is troubled by dreams in which her mind links with that of a serial killer. She “witnesses” the death of a missing child (the object of the divers’ quest), but the authorities refuse to believe her. When the murderer violates her life and nearly destroys her sanity, Claire has no option but to “become” her tormentor in order to locate, identify, and exorcise him.
I’ve been intentionally vague about the movie’s specifics in order to preserve the wonder and terror of its unexpected twists and startling juxtapositions. In Dreams has the nightmarish texture of a campfire story. Clues to the source of its surreal fairy-tale tone include the edition of the Brothers Grimm that Claire has illustrated, and a grade-school Snow White woodland masque in which Rebecca appears as part of a band of gossamer-winged angels. (An additional clue is Jordan’s underrated second feature, The Company of Wolves (1984), a Freudian interpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The filmmaker has mined this vein before.) In Dreams’ complex, sometimes bewildering conflation of fantasy and reality may not hold up to rational scrutiny, but, like Hitchcock in Vertigo, Jordan fabricates a hauntingly propulsive dream logic that transcends piddling concerns about plausibility. His movie is a wild ride that kept me glued to the screen through its series of startling climaxes.
Jordan’s theme may be shopwornpsychic linkage served as the mainspring of The Eyes of Laura Mars and the Nightmare on Elm Street seriesand some of his formal devices are familiar, too. (In Dreams’ persistent red motif echoes Hitchcock’s use of white in Spellbound and red in Marnie.) But his virtuosic direction energizes the material. This effort is inestimably abetted by an accomplished cast and crew. Bening’s emotionally and physically grueling performance delivers on the promise of her revelatory work in The Grifters, a breakthrough undermined by colorless follow-up appearances in Love Affair, Regarding Henry, and other flops. Sly, handsome Quinn once again demonstrates why his assured underplaying has made him one of the busiest (albeit most underrated) contemporary actors. Stephen Rea, a veteran of seven Jordan films, makes the most of his thankless role as Claire’s skeptical doctor. Lest I give away too many secrets, suffice it to say that Downey’s on-screen performance mirrors his recent off-screen behavior.
Composed of a series of dynamic set pieces, In Dreams offers a demonstration of state-of-the-art filmmaking. Cinematographer Darius Khondji, responsible for three of the most strikingly photographed films of the past decadeSeven, Evita, and Stealing Beautyoutdoes himself this time around, in an achievement matched by Nigel Phelps’ production designs and Jeffrey Kurland’s costumes.
In Dreams held me spellbound, but I fear that it’s doomed to cult movie status, to being a box-office disappointment that only gradually builds a reputation through videocassette and cable airings. Like Blade Runner, Wolfen, The Hunger, and Zardoz, it’s a stylistic fantasia, a work that unleashes its creator’s artistic obsessions, even chunks of his madness. For moviegoers capable of handling the sensory overload, this is the real thing.
Hollywood has not done well by the works of writer-physician Oliver Sacks. Penny Marshall’s 1990 Awakenings spoiled a harrowing medical story about the brief resurrection and tragic reversion of a group of comatose patients by pasting on an inane coda in which bashful research physician Robin Williams finally works up the courage to ask his nurse out for coffee. Nothing quite that asinine transpires in Irwin Winkler’s At First Sight, a new version of a similar story: A sightless man regains, then loses, his vision. But Winkler’s turgid direction of Steve Levitt’s formulaic screenplay transforms Sacks’ “To See and Not See” into a trite handicap-of-the-week potboiler.
Stressed-out Manhattan architect Amy (Mira Sorvino) retreats to a bucolic spa, where she meets and falls for blind-since-childhood masseur Virgil (Val Kilmer). He returns with her to the city, where an experimental procedure briefly restores his sight. Just as Virgil begins learning how to process visual information, he starts experiencing “retinal shutdown.” These drastic changes threaten his relationship with Amy.
At First Sight’s opening reels are rich in smutty howlers. At Amy’s initial massage session, Virgil questions her as to “how deep” she “wants it.” Later, after watching his solo hockey practice on a frozen pond, she observes, “You’re pretty good with that stick.” In the movie’s least plausible scene, Amy witnesses Virgil tapping his way across the spa grounds without realizing he’s blind. Hardly a woman one would confidently hire to design a building.
Levitt’s screenplay turns more serious (and less enjoyable) following Virgil’s operation, dissolving into a series of simpering subplots. Virgil has a Father Problem (his dad deserted him when he was a kid) and a Sister Problem, too. His devoted, vaguely incestuous spinster sibling Jenny (Kelly McGillis) is jealous because Amy has stolen her brother away. There’s also an ongoing mystery as to the identity of “the puffy thing” Virgil remembers seeing in his infancy. (Hints: (1) It’s not what a good Freudian would think. (2) It’s even worse.) Amy comes equipped with an emblematic sculpturea mother and childwhich she’s never been able to complete, just one of the film’s many clanging symbols. Other embarrassments include shameless product placement for the first thing Virgil sees after his vision is restoreda bright-red Coke canand a sludgy fadeout sermon about what constitutes True Sight (“We don’t see with our eyes…” blah blah blah).
Falling stars Kilmer and Sorvino lack the magnetism to sustain material this feeble. Kilmer’s bovine narcissism prevents one from caring much about him, and Sorvino’s narrow expressive range restricts Amy to eye-batting bliss and lip-biting unhappiness. In her first major studio project in a decade, McGillis returns shockingly altered in appearance. Hard-faced and sunken-cheeked, she resembles a younger Jeane Kirkpatricknot a nice thing to happen to a person. Nathan Lane contributes more of his tiresome shtick as a therapist brought in to assist Virgil following his operation. Of the ensemble, only Steven Weber, cast as Amy’s snaky business partner and ex-husband, makes a favorable impression.
Before turning to direction, for which he demonstrates little aptitude, Winkler enjoyed a long, rather distinguished career as a producer for John Boorman, Martin Scorsese, and other filmmakers. To date, he has helmed a toothless political drama (Guilty by Suspicion), a flatfooted film noir remake (Night and the City), and a faltering thriller (The Net). He’d be well advised to emulate Sacks’ patients and retreat to his original state, leaving the artistic stuff in more capable hands.CP